Batman’s a hero who needs no introduction.
Whether he’s busy fighting crime on the big screen, or somehow finding the time to scrawl bat symbols on thousands of pairs of Primark undies, the caped crusader is a character who’s clearly left a batarang-shaped impression in our collective conscience.
Yet after countless movies, comics and games spent getting to know the Bat, Telltale asks, how well do we really know the man?
After playing the first two episodes of Telltale’s latest series I no longer care about Batman – it’s Bruce Wayne I’m interested in.
MAN BEHIND THE MASK
The first episode, Realm of Shadows, kicks off with the kind of action packed opening scene you’d expect from a Batman game. After diving headfirst through an impossibly high City Hall window, you advance through the building floor by floor, dishing out a brutal bat-beating to the terrified, clueless goons trying to rob the place.
In true Telltale fashion, you deal out justice by frantically tapping buttons to match on screen prompts, until all the BOOM THWACK POWs have been delivered to the deserving henchmen.
While it’s admittedly pretty slick and well-scripted stuff, watching the action unfold while you’re relegated to sporadic button prompts feels pretty underwhelming after the free-flowing combat of RockSteady’s Batman.
Sensibly, Telltale quickly switches focus to what they do best – telling great stories.
When a battered and blood-soaked Batman returns to Wayne Manor, we immediately see a more human and complex character than we saw in the Arkham games or arguably even in the Nolan movies.
After patching yourself up and getting an ear-full from Alfred, you don your finest tux and stagger to Harvey Dent’s political fundraiser.
This being a Telltale game, you call the shots by making dialogue choices that affect how characters interact with you, and where the story ultimately goes.
You’ll encounter journalists, family friends and even mob bosses, making quick witted decisions where you get to shape not only how the world views Bruce Wayne, but also how much you choose to help Gotham without wearing a mask.
What could have been a generic but still enjoyable Bat-athon instead turns into an experience that shows Bruce as more than just the awkward, billionaire alias Batman hides behind.
Telltale knew that there was a brilliant series of Batman games out there already – so they wisely chose to make a great Bruce Wayne game instead.
WHY SO SERIOUS?
Realm of Shadows alternates between Bruce and the caped crusade as you unravel a twisting story. It’s a varied couple of hours, where you’re tasked with everything from hosting press events to investigating blood-soaked crime scenes.
This is gritty, and in places very gruesome affair – it’s definitely not your family-friendly 1960’s Batman, and is even darker than the Noir-inspired animated series.
It isn’t just the gore that puts you in an uncomfortable position though - you’re also going to have to make some pretty difficult decisions.
Should you help bankroll a well known criminal if it will genuinely make Gotham a better place? Do you torture that mercenary if he can give you information that can help save lives?
The blurred morality really helps you feel like your decisions are more important than in previous Telltale games, and I’m curious to see how much impact my choices have on future episodes.
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Gameplay wise, Realm Of Shadows is largely what you’d expect from the developer– for better and for worse.
While the dialogue is still great, the obligatory ‘walk around and find things’ investigative section you expect from these games definitely overstays its welcome.
Thankfully, towards the end of the episode there’s a clever stealth section that sees you scoping out a building while carefully planning beautifully orchestrated takedowns for each individual henchman.
This thoughtful and fitting segment not only makes sense in terms of the character you’re playing but also goes a long way to helping you feel like you’re actually contributing to the majestic mayhem unfolding on screen.
It turns out you can teach an old Bat new tricks.
Enter the Children of Arkham
We got man behind the mask in the first episode, but episode two opts for a more frantic, Batman-focused affair.
This time, Telltale drop some pretty major truth bombs early on, putting an interesting new twist on the Bat’s well-worn origin story. Annoyingly though, instead of using these (pretty major) revelations to delve deeper into the complex web of Bruce Wayne’s psyche, Children of Arkham instead chooses to advance the story at all costs.
Clocking in at an hour and a half, half an hour shorter than Realm of Shadows, this fast-paced affair sucker-punches you with precipitate pacing, letting you make some major plot decisions, but barely leaving enough time for them to have any emotional impact.
After swiftly resolving the biggest plot points from Realm of Shadows, this episode’s finale see’s everyone’s favourite British baddie Thomas Cobblepot take centre stage. There are some surprising revelations that help you to understand his motivations, but he still comes across as a bit of a panto villain.
Gameplay wise, it’s a bit of a let down too, somehow managing to feel even more simplistic than the first episode. While Realm of Shadows was a tad too combat heavy for our liking, it still made the effort to throw in a few detective sections and an interesting tactical combat mechanic here and there to mix things up.
Outside of one brief tactical combat section, there are no puzzle sections or interesting mini games here - leaving gameplay that feels pretty much like Telltale-by-numbers.
BATMAN: THE TELLTALE SERIES - VERDICT
The opening episode wasn’t without it’s flaws, but there was definitely a lot to like from Telltale’s first take on the caped crusader.
Sure, the story themes covered some pretty well-trodden ground, but the excellent voice acting and unique portrayal of Bruce really went a long way to making this feel like a story you haven’t heard before.
Children of Arkham tells an almost equalluy entertaining story, even if it’s missing a bit of emotional depth and proper characterisation. Now that the pieces are slowly falling into place, I'm hoping that future episodes can recapture some of that initial magic, continuing to focus on Bruce’s anguish rather than just giving him new baddies to pummel.
Early on in Realm of Shadows, Alfred sees the damage Wayne is doing to himself and pleads with him to remember that ‘there’s room for Bruce and Batman inside that suit.’ After finishing the first two episodes, I’m more than inclined to agree.